Brian Pickering, Senior Research Fellow, University of Southampton

You are here

17 Sep 2020

Brian Pickering, Senior Research Fellow, University of Southampton

Senior Research Fellow, University of Southampton

Brian Pickering is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Southampton, UK, and was invited to act as co-moderator RDA-COVID19-Legal-Ethical WG and as a contributor in the Social Sciences subgroup. In this interview he tells us about his experience.


What roles did you play in the RDA COVID-19 Working Group?

I was asked to join and act as co-moderator of the Legal & Ethical Cross-cutting Considerations subWG; and I was a contributor in the Social Sciences subWG. I have subsequently worked with the visualisation team, specifically in connection with the Legal & Ethical subWG, working on the brochure and then now on the data wizard. I’ve continued as an active member of the dissemination teams producing two papers, one as a summary over the recommendations; the other on radical collaboration.


Why did you feel the need to join the group?

To be perfectly honest, I was not aware of the original call for participation. The PO for one of the H2020 projects I work on had sent a request to the consortium to encourage participation. As the ethics manager for the project, I was the obvious choice. Having said that, once I’d read a little more about the intention of the WG, I saw it as a way to make a direct contribution to the pandemic which I would not otherwise have been able to provide. Once I’d volunteered, I just followed the requests to identify skills etc. and went with the flow initially.


Who do you think would benefit most by applying these guidelines and recommendations (policy makers, researchers, etc.)? Can you mention any case of adoption so far?

I suspect the biggest audience will be researchers initially trying to understand how best to enable and encourage data sharing. Beyond that, though, the EU and similar political organisations will benefit from an awareness of the recommendations as a bottom-up / grassroots self-motivated consultation document: so, policy makers. It’s already been cited by the OECD; and we also presented it at ESOF, not least in connection with the EOSC initiative. 


Can you identify a potential scenario in which these guidelines and recommendations would be applied and help alleviate the impact of another potential emergency?

There is a lot of activity and discussion going on right now about data sharing and about secure, possibly federated, trusted research data infrastructures. The broader research community - those involved in these activities - are already beginning to look at these recommendations. So time will tell. Initiatives like EOSC is already there, thanks to direct RDA links. But the other main area, I feel, are groups like the European Group on Ethics  (EGE) and the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) in the first instance looking to protect themselves from being caught on the hop in future. A third area - though this is a longshot - would be organisations like UNESCO and institutions like the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR): the recommendations are global and not just European, and they are based on sound community and vulnerable-group ethical imperatives. So I for one would like to see a more fundamental consideration of data sharing recommendations like this tied in with broader human-rights type discussion.


What were the pros and cons of having this working group produce this report in such a small window of time?

On the plus side, it focused effort over a short period of time which corresponded almost exactly with a period of lockdown as we had not seen before. So this gave people an outlet to counter the powerless over the wider issues imposed by the pandemic. In practical terms too, this ensured commitment at levels that would not generally be sustainable over the longterm without funding, or at least ‘time-off-in-lieu’ type agreements.

By contrast - and especially for newcomers - it was difficult to try and get to grips with RDA working practices at the same time as doing the actual drafting etc. Further, and I guess this relates to the focus on ‘radical collaboration’, it’s not easy to collaborate effectively with unknown colleagues from a whole range of disciplines without some initial networking and understanding personal goals etc. 


How would you describe the value of the international research collaboration facilitated by the RDA on an initiative such as this?

This is about showing policy makers but also the community at large that there is a lot of motivation in the science community to capitalise on and share experience and knowledge. It is and was essential to maintain a truly global scope and not just EU/EEA one.


What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?

Hope. It’s easy to despair of the current political climate, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. We shouldn’t forget, though, that a growing cynicism (partly fuelled by populism and fake news) is not just directed towards politicians, but also scientists and the ‘expert elite’. To see a very large group of those scientists engage and work collaboratively for the benefit of the wider community has to be a positive indication that we have the power to do what is right irrespective of political mayhem.